Given that a lot of movies these days are instantly disposable, Children of Men is something of an anomaly. After two hours of watching the film in rapt attention, I found myself unable to articulate what it actually was trying to say. The story’s message was deeply felt, yet somehow hard for me to verbalize. I turned to the friend seated next to me and asked what he thought. He fumbled for words, unsuccessfully. So did I. We got up and left. By the time we reached the parking lot, we were in full-fledged discussion of the thing. The next day, Children of Men was still kicking around in my brain, its impact coming more clearly into focus. A film such as this is, really, a treasure. There is something satisfying about a movie that forces you to hang onto it – one where the impact grows greater the more you think about it.
Set in England sometime in the not-terribly-distant future, Children of Men takes place in a society where women have become infertile. We’re never really told what happened, but there are indications of multiple global tragedies, including terrorist attacks and a deadly pandemic. In the opening moments, stunned British citizens watch a news report about how the world’s youngest person (age 18) has just died. That’s right; no babies have been born in almost two decades. No wonder everyone is depressed, gloomy, and fatalistic.
Clive Owen plays Theo, a bureaucrat who is kidnapped by a rebel group led by ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). She and her cohorts are fighting the totalitarian government’s inhumane treatment of refugees. Julian asks Theo to help her safely transport one such refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), through an Underground Railroad-type system that leads to The Human Project – a shadowy rescue organization. Theo hedges at first, but then agrees because it seems straightforward enough. Then he discovers the hitch: the young woman is pregnant.
To say any more about the plot would give away elements best left discovered on your own. What can safely be said that is Theo and Kee face multiple dangers on their journey as they try to keep her pregnancy from being discovered. (One character points out that the government would likely greet the pregnancy with more enthusiasm if it were not a refugee carrying the fetus.)
Children of Men was directed by Alfonso Cuaron who, in my opinion, is emerging into one of our most important filmmakers. Having tackled everything from the sexually charged adolescent drama Y Tu Mama Tambien to the third (and darkest) Harry Potter movie, Cuaron has shown an ability to make thoughtful, ambitious, provocative movies in a variety of genres. In this case, he avoids the usual clichés of futuristic movies and creates something more authentic. Using long, often-uninterrupted takes and handheld cameras, Cuaron gives the film a documentary feel. This is particularly effective in a scene where Theo and Kee dash through a combat zone. At one point, blood squirts onto the camera lens and, instead of cutting away, Cuaron lets it hang there as the scene continues. The effect makes you feel like you are running for cover right behind them.
Another scene is also tremendously effective. The van Theo and some others are riding in is ambushed. During the sequence, where armed people charge the automobile from all directions, the camera rotates in a circle from inside, allowing us to look out each window to see what’s happening. You’re essentially inside the car with everyone else, frantically looking around to assess the imminent threat. While moments such as these may sound like garden variety action scenes, they carry more weight than that. They convey the fight for survival that Theo and the pregnant girl are literally engaging in. When the world is going to see its first child in almost twenty years, a lot hangs in the balance.
Interestingly, Clive Owen does not play a generic unwitting hero, a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Theo is shrewd, cynical, and compassionate all at once. His reasons for helping Kee initially seem obvious – who wouldn’t fight to protect an unborn child in this circumstance – but gradually reveal themselves to be more personal. Owen handles the part brilliantly. Julianne Moore is also tops, as is Michael Caine, who plays Theo’s good-natured, pot-smoking hippie friend, whose purpose in the plot I will not reveal.
So after postponing the writing of this review for a few days so I could think about it, what did I come up with to explain Children of Men’s undeniable impact? I won’t spell out my theories completely because you’ll want to form your own. However, I will say that the film incorporates a lot of issues our world is currently dealing with: disease, poverty, terrorism, refugee treatment, and global political instability. It also very delicately calls to mind the ongoing debate over the rights of the unborn. Basically, the movie portrays a world where all these issues have spiraled beyond our control. It’s a cautionary tale to some degree, yet also a reminder of how embracing our shared humanity could move us to resolve these problems.
Children of Men is so dense with themes and ideas that it doubtlessly becomes more rewarding with multiple viewings, as the various layers become clearer. For now, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars, but I suspect that if I saw it again, I might give it the full four. The film definitely got to me and, by having the courage to be legitimately challenging, made me eager to experience it again.
( 1/2 out of four)
Children of Men is rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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